Overhauling the Leadership Conference:



Why Leadership Conferences Are Typically Wasted Opportunities

Practically every company larger than 500 employees has an annual leadership conference for their top leaders. More often than not, these meetings – held at great real and opportunity cost – don’t even scratch the surface of their potential.
Leadership conferences are usually held with a wedding mindset, where most of the energy is directed to travel logistics and booking talent. In this metaphor, the “bride and groom” are company execs, powering through PowerPoint in the front and the “band” are expert speakers, to provide some inspirational edutainment. Participants are “wedding guests” to cheer and be inspired. The fundamental mode is 1-way, non-interactive communications – where the audience is passively observing and waiting for breaks to network in the hallways.

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How Leadership Conferences Can Meet Needs of Modern Organizations

The “wedding” format is a shameful missed opportunity because it isn’t focused on current business needs and fails to acknowledge how people learn and how they are activated – heads, hearts and hands.

Modern organizations are more distributed, more virtual and more interdependent than ever. They are more challenged than ever to re-align and focus, exercising great agility to adapt and lead as context changes. Leadership teams hunger for opportunities to bridge functional and geographic barriers; but also, to inspire, to commit and to enable their key leadership talent in new ways. So, how then could these goals possibly be addressed in a 1-way, non-interactive format?

Consider also, that today’s talent – in their 20s, 30s and 40s – is awash in interactive content, accustom to personalization and co-creation, rather than one-size-fits-all, top-down direction. They know better and expect more. Yet, this high-end talent is sitting in the typical conference bored, tuned-out and disempowered.

There IS a better way to truly digest new ideas, to internalize and interpret, to build commitment and ultimately, real follow-through. We have co-designed and co-facilitated offsites with some of the world’s most innovative, sector-leading firms. Below are key principles that we have learned.

But first, let’s dispel one myth, before reading on. The following is not about handing out gold-stars, singing kumbaya or any other activities which dilute from analytically rigorous content. Rather, it is about repurposing Large Conferences to achieve results, through the application of best practices of design-thinking, decision- making, commitment-building and organizational action.


  • Begin with the End in Mind

Don’t fall for the classic pitfall of starting with content, asking “what do we need to present?”

Rather, start first place by viewing the meeting, not as a standalone event, but as a part of how things get done, bridging from ideas to action. Think of it as an immensely effective tool for leveraging your greatest talent to advance the most salient, contemporary causes of the business. That necessarily requires a sharp understanding of current goals and challenges and the implied outcomes from this meeting right now.

As you sit down to design the agenda, begin with the end in mind. Ask, where are we now in the business?

Are we hitting our stride and growing? Are we poised at the bottom, commencing a turnaround? Is this kickoff for a new chapter? For example, a celebration in context of deep downturn is tone-deaf and just won’t work.

Based on this, you should set clear business outcomes for the meeting, so you can design an offsite with strategic value. If you find yourself using words like “present”, “discuss”, or “educate”, try harder. Even better, recognize where the meeting fits in a larger process – including what happens before and what must happen after.

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  • Tune In To What The Room Needs

A meeting is about the engagement of people – real live human beings, who were not born the moment they stepped into the room. Invest a bit of time to achieve a basic understanding of participant need and mood, by interviewing and answering some simple questions. Otherwise you may provide content that they already know, ignore issues that are so top-of-mind that they can’t engage on anything else, or miss out on the most important messages and modes of engagement.

Do you know what is unclear or ambiguous strategically? What is the general vibe – anxious? apathetic? excited? There are many options for how to engage people – see below – but only some will suit your participants’ needs right now. It shouldn’t take too much effort to engage 8-15 leaders in 45-minute dialogues to dial in these perspectives.

  • Keep It Real with Candid Dialogue IN THE ROOM

You have, in one room, the leadership brain trust of the organization, with feet on the ground leading Business Units and Support Functions. They are uniquely able to connect the dots and surface opportunities and issues vital to the success of the corporate direction. Leverage the unique assemblage of talent in the room to deepen understanding, share observations and open discussion.

There are enormous benefits to allowing your senior leads to “let their hair down” and wrestle with content with their peers, face-to-face. This deepens understanding and increases commitment further while building cohesion among the leadership. Instead of presenting a stance of “here is the corporate content; thou must digest and implement”, you are saying, “we are leaders here together, to reflect and discuss, to own, review and drive”. None of this requires revisiting or reformulating strategy, but simply an openness to listen to feedback and refinement, that bridges from theory to requirements for implementation success.

  • Mix It Up and Leverage Interactive Modes of Learning

The most obvious goal of any leadership conference is to level-set understanding of essential corporate information – external market, customer and competition; Corporate/BU goals, priorities, strategies and initiatives; key changes to org. structure, decision processes and communications.

The standard mode of communicating these is through well-crafted PowerPoint, multimedia and Q&A. This is a helpful starting point, to ensure the top leadership of the firm is equipped with fundamental understandings. But intellectual absorption is not enough. Experience drives learning. Just to whet the appetite, consider these options for engagement:

  • Case-based simulations
  • Poster-based guided visioning and assessments
  • Prepared issue resolution and problem-solving
  • Relationship-deepening activities
  • Commitment-building rituals
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Yes, corporate information must be shared, with great precision and production excellence. But there is a vital opportunity in a forum of top leaders to interact in both open and structured dialogue that raises issues and facilitates execution.

So, think of the experiential journey of the meeting – it should have an opening, middle and close – and mix things up to optimize both outcomes and experience.

  • Inspire, Personalize and Activate

The “Top 100” of any company are those most directly accountable to the financial and operational goals of the company. They are the key managers working within their BU and functional teams to deliver results. Some will be tasked with a specific corporate priority or initiative. But all participants are also LEADERS within the company, ambassadors and role models. The ultimate success of any initiative on a company-wide basis involves change – adoption of new processes and tools, evolution of thinking and behavior, partnering with each other in new ways.

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“Top 100” off-sites can act to create awareness and understanding by “telling and selling” key changes. But there is a difference between cognitively accepting a corporate dictate and answering the questions “am I committed to this?” and “how do I get involved?”

The opportunity is to address both the ability and desire of leaders, engaging them experientially, so that they wrestle with the “ask”, customize the application to their situations and prepare to inspire and lead others. Through engagement and interaction, leaders can play with new ideas, testing relevance and action-ability. They can take general corporate messaging and make it their own. They can own key changes with the spirit “it’s up to me” and prepare in fun ways (without PowerPoint!) for engaging their own teams and customers  on key messages and asks.

Finally, Leadership Conferences create a powerful opportunity to set the stage for great execution, by cementing commitment and locking-in actual follow-through. Commitment can be secured through well- crafted rituals, internalizing and even publicly communicating their commitment to the effort and specific  next step actions. As well, the off-site itself can lock-in follow-up checkpoints periodically throughout the year and a broad-based expectation for follow-up – we WILL accomplish what we are launching at this meeting. This IS going to happen!

Tori Cox